Vermont Spring Sunday: Modern Sugar House

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Winter came back to us a few days ago, and we woke up to a new inch of snow on the ground yesterday, dang it. The desire to be outdoors is palpable everywhere you go. Funny that I’ve lived through my third Vermont winter without the singular experience of visiting a maple sugaring operation, ’til today. People in the ‘hood will figure out where these photos were made; it happens to be spitting distance from home. A bit touristy, but also an energetic and happy operation run by enthusiastic folks who really want to teach you about their maple syrup and feed you free pancakes. That said, I could not really follow our docent. He was a fast talker who assumed we knew much more than we did (speaking for myself only, actually). Suffice it to say, the sap flows from maples this time of year; people who sugar fuss about high temperatures reaching too high too soon, and other syrup-y conundrums. Then it is boiled and boiled, reduced until it becomes the sticky elixir known as maple syrup. And I’ve just distilled down this process for you–afficionados would have so much more to say–there are filtering steps along the way to reduce sediment (which hard core folks sometimes actually want in their syrup) and create the perfect, translucent liquid that is bottled for store shelves. Too bad I can’t share the unbelievable smell this little house was belching out earlier today. The equipment is shiny, state-of-the-art, acquired four years ago, we were told. It’s the wave of the maple syrup-making future. Beautiful, delicious, warming, sustaining goo. On the tour they hand it to you steaming hot, in little cups–and they’ll keep refilling, if you want more (I speak from experience). Finished our visit with a trip inside the adjacent Norman Rockwell exhibit, and cider doughnuts. It was high time to see a place I pass twice on my daily commute. (And of course Handsome Chef Boyfriend knew everybody there.) Not a bad Sunday spring outing, even if it still feels like winter.

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Spring is about renewal, right?

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It all started with a shower curtain. Well, actually a shower curtain mishap a few weeks ago, which got me thinking about replacing the shower curtain rings. Thence to the liner–we really could use a new liner. One thought led to another and I soon found myself wondering, What’s a groovy, designer shower curtain go for these days? And do the nice ones ever go on sale?

Turns out they do. I found one on a groovy, designer website for $4.99 and free shipping. It was heavy cotton canvas with bold, white-on-white stripes–and shocking lime green ones, too. (The product description read, “Vivid Shower Curtain.” Oh yeah, it’s definitely vivid.) On the web page, it looked phenomenal, of course. The model bathroom was all zen and white and had a teakwood steppy-outie thing, which it turns out was not on sale, and cost a damn sight more than I’d pay for a cotton dhurrie bathmat. I have stacks and stacks of those. Anywho. The shocking lime green was maybe the only color in the otherwise all-white zen bathroom, with the possible exception of those modern containers of fresh, green grass shoots strategically placed here and there. (How do people keep those things looking fresh all the time? Or keep their cats from destroying them?)

So the problem with this sleek, modern, zen shower curtain with the shocking lime green stripes was the shocking purple bathroom in our rental house (landlord’s choice, not ours). Of course, the maroon and gold curtain did not exactly work next to the purple, either, as you can see in the photo. The obvious solution: repaint (and update) the bathroom. To match the $4.99 shower curtain. We had a brand new gallon of eggshell finish ivory paint in the basement that was a freebie. How long could it take to throw that on the walls of the small bathroom in our rental house? I know, right? Maybe a couple of hours, tops.

I was left to my own devices this weekend with Handsome Chef Boyfriend at an out-of-town hockey tourney with his teenager, so I had the perfect chance to do this two-hour job without anybody under my feet asking to use the bathroom. (Yes, there is only one bathroom here…to be shared by four humans.) I got up early yesterday, thinking I’d do the bathroom project for the first half of the day, then a bunch of other chores, and then today I’d have all this time to maybe go to church, and write, and, and….

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About a half hour into taping, HCB called; how’s it going, Rembrandt? he wanted to know. I’ve only just started taping, I said, but once I get this done it shouldn’t be long at all. (Oh, and to my credit: Friday after work I stopped at the Home Despot for supplies. Friday night I spray-painted the baseboard heater, which was rusty and had already been prepped for paint a few days ago, because I knew there would be overspray and I wanted that part done before I put paint on the walls. It was messy, but it turned out great. See? There was forethought and planning to this project. Yeah, I got this.)

Turns out that taping a bathroom takes longer than an hour. I’m not kidding. There were all kinds of little fixtures and things I had to tape around. In a perfect world I’d have taken them off the walls. But I did not have a screwdriver, except for a weenie one on my Swiss Army knife. (My real tools are still at the loft, and I did not want to keep haranguing HCB with annoying texts asking where things were.) So when I finally finished putting blue tape on everything, I was more than anxious to crack open the paint can.

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Erm, not so fast. First, I could not get the lid off the paint can. I know how to do it–I’ve done it scores of times, I’ve undertaken many, many painting projects in my lifetime. Once I even worked alongside a contractor who was remodeling our home (in the last chapter of my life) and said he wanted to hire me. Mad painting skillz, here. I assumed my Swiss Army knife could handle that paint can lid; I was wrong. The lid behaved like cheap aluminum foil and the rim simply unfurled in every spot where I tried to pry it open. By the time I had worked my way around it I had done to the paint can something I think is equivalent to stripping a screw–I was running out of room to try. (And also by this time I was sweating, a lot, and cursing out loud, and pretty much having a grown-up meltdown.) Finally, finally, by some miracle, I got the lid off, although it was nearly bent in half. I would worry about that later; nothing was going to stop this project from happening now.

There were some other unforeseen problems.

Have I mentioned the purple walls? Turns out that ivory does not cover purple well. At all. So when I first started doing the edges with the little 99-cent sponge brush, it looked terrible. Really terrible. Like a deranged person or a toddler had gotten ahold of the paint supplies. I had this awful feeling that I was now in over my head, but I did not want to create some huge painting problem that HCB would later have to fix–I really, really wanted to do this quickly–and well–and have everybody return home to a fresh, new bathroom. And there had been some mockery about the $4.99 shower curtain: this project simply could not fail. The issue was not so much the shower curtain design–there was at least some consensus that the curtain itself really is lovely. Just that the idea of painting an entire room to match a cheap shower curtain is maybe a bit over the top.

Several hours (and a couple of coats) later, the bathroom began to look mainly ivory, although it was clear I’d need to apply one more coat, possibly more on the edges. Finally. I’d taken no breaks and my back and calves were aching; my painting elbow was painfully inflamed; and my chronic foot injury was screaming. I decided to zip out to the store for a bottle of wine. This turned out to be maybe the only good decision of the day, which had started with a cayenne pepper mishap. (Don’t ask.) While I was in the store HCB texted me for a progress report; still at it, I said. We should’ve started with primer, he said. Too late for that.

I finished late, about the time HCB called to say goodnight, maybe nine or ten hours in. I was pulling off tape while we talked, which sadly was also pulling off some of the paint where I had to apply many coats to cover the purple. Not to worry, he said, he had an edging tool and he’d deal with those spots later. Good man, HCB.

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I removed the landlord’s art from the walls, to be stored away until we find new digs. I replaced it with some of my own art I’ve missed seeing for a while. Moving is hard on your stuff. I’ve damaged some art and frames in each of the three moves I’ve undertaken in the last three years; the wall is really the safest place for it. I confess this is now a ballet-themed bathroom, and I am not sure how well that will go over. This is the Angel Corella corner, the photo taken during his years with ABT (I know, he’s all blurry–take my word for it).

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And this is the David Hallberg corner (also ABT–and the Bolshoi!–currently a principal dancer). That photo was made by an amazing artist and friend, Matt Murphy, who danced for a few years with ABT himself before a complete professional reinvention as a photographer (he did my headshot a few years ago on a teacher training trek to NYC). I think about that every time I see the photo, and draw inspiration from it.

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And this is the Alicia Alonso corner, here seen with an unknown male dancer. She spent most of her career dancing blind. I also find this hugely inspiring about her.

Bye bye, purple. This morning as I was surveying my work, I had one last thought: the bathroom needs a new curtain. I brought a lot of pretty curtains with me from my life in Tennessee, and many I have not yet had occasion to use. So here is the final piece of punctuation on my bathroom project:

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I like it, in spite of yesterday’s reality check. Our bathroom has been successfully renewed: it is clean and fresh and bright, even though it is not really truly ours. The gang will be arriving here any moment now. Hope they like it, too.

Yeah, ’cause I am finished with my painting project. Finished.

Happy springtime, gentle readers.

 

 

Somebody call the decorum police. Please.

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That was the view out the front door earlier this morning; seems last week’s moderating temperatures and dry, sunny days were just a tease. Figures. My erstwhile home state of Tennessee has had a rough winter, I understand. (Vermonters feel your pain after one of the coldest winters on record here.)

But this post is not about the weather. It’s about the human condition. As different as the weather may be in the two states, people are the same wherever you go. That conventional wisdom is the truth.

Last week I went into a particular big box store that shall go unnamed except to say that it rhymes with small fart. I detest going there–in Tennessee, in Vermont, or any other state. I go for the same reason most people do–for bargains on necessaries. On a good day I can overlook store filth and disinterested staff; on a bad one I feel like I need a bodyguard. Last week I witnessed a new low among lowest common denominators, if that is even possible.

I tried to ignore the portentous screaming child who was leaving the store as I was going in. I am talking blood-curdling and hair-raising, like a kid in genuine distress. But then I saw him walking next to the shopping cart his mom was pushing into the parking lot, younger sibling in tow, mom angrily shouting there would be no television for the rest of the day. She looked tired and harangued. I’ve been there; I have no idea what the kid did to get himself into his pickle; I silently thanked the universe those days are over for me, and sent up a little offering of strength to the mom, that her resolve would not weaken as the evening wore on. You go, mama.

It gets worse. I had been inside the store taking care of business for maybe a nanosecond when a woman walked past me and farted. Loud and long and without shame. Standing right next to me. No small fart here. Neither she nor her (presumed) husband batted an eye. They just kept on gabbing and walking. And I got the heck out of the way, to avoid, you know. The word miscreant popped into my head, along with underbelly of society, and other uncharitable phrases I will not quote here.

I know: I am a princess, right? The last time I was in this particular store I was shopping for a pair of readers for Handsome Chef Boyfriend so he would not have to keep toting his home pair to work with him. I was scrutinizing the spartan offerings of the Small Fart pharmacy and at some point grew marginally aware of a disturbance somewhere in my periphery. The noise ballooned until neither I (nor anyone) could ignore it. Swearing. Lots of it, no filters, angry (nay, hostile–almost delusional), coming from a man pushing his toddler in a cart and ranting about why medicine costs so much to his (presumed) wife, who did not say anything. The child was taking it all in, as children do. Every. Single. Word. I could go on about this bully and his captive audience, but I’ve said enough.

At one point people joked about a particular Small Fart location in Tennessee where it was said the store kept impossibly late hours so that unwed teenage mothers and their infant children could come in and shop. It’s not really very funny. Last week I started thinking of this establishment corporately as a microcosm–or as a petri dish of sorts–for the American culture of poverty. It’s not the poverty, of course, that is most reprehensible; nobody really sets out to be poor. It’s the ignorance. And of course the two are inseparable. And the most terrifying corollary to this axiom: ignorance begets ignorance.

I’m not observing anything here that has not been observed a million times before by minds far greater than my own. I’ve just had my nose rubbed in it a few times lately.

My daily commute takes me right past Robert Frost’s home, a stone house sitting close to the highway, beautiful in its simplicity. And for a moment I think about Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, written at that house. I can hear my eleventh-grade English teacher using the Socratic method to draw answers out of us about its meanings, and later a college professor attempting the same. I see the beautiful hardcover copy of the book that was a favorite of my young son, pored over scores of times from the comfort and security of his clean bedsheets at the end of the day, or being held and rocked in the lap of a loving parent. I thought about it again this morning, looking out the window, dismayed as I was that it was snowing. Again. Did anybody read that poem to the angry man swearing out loud in front of his listening child? (Did anybody ever read anything out loud to him, and if they did, when did things begin to turn south?)

Maybe the human condition after all is one of suffering, which would be our undoing but for a single, beautiful, four-letter word: hope.

Back to Small Fart. I propose a coporate change. The greeter (you know the ones–they wear blue vests and offer you a shopping cart when you walk in) is your redemption, dear corporate shirts: they are people of civility and charity. In the new utopian big box retail experience the greeter is entrusted not only with shopping carts, but with the policing of manners and deportment. Give them some executive power to, you know, ask people not to fart out loud or curse in front of their kids in the store. (And maybe a vest made of kevlar.) The Small Fart greeter: America’s hope for the future.

 

March 1, 2015 Vital Signs: A Letter Home

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That was a recent winter morning here in the southwest quadrant of Vermont, USA, rare sunlight dappling the woods behind the house. Lately our days have started with temperatures at or below zero, typically without sunshine. Nights have been much colder. One morning last week my car would not turn over without convincing, and then shuddered and complained loudly when it finally did. But the absence of sun–that may be the biggest challenge of Vermont’s long winters, speaking only for myself.

The real reason I shot the photo was to illustrate the exquisite shoveling skills of one of us here, and it sure as heck is not moi. When I was living alone in the loft the best I could do was keep a path to the garage below sort of cleared. New England winters demand those kinds of skills; mine are adequate at best. Still, I have so little tolerance for conventional wisdom articulated with the proverbial eye roll: Time to put on your “big girl” panties.Those are possibly the least sensitive words to proffer somebody unaccustomed to life in these conditions. It would be like saying the same to a person trying to acclimate to the oppressive and dangerous heat and humitidy in the South, if they never had before.

To date I have learned how to shovel a decent path, build a fire in the wood stove pretty quickly, remove dead mice from traps at the frequency of about three or so a week (they are cold like the rest of us; they want to come inside and often find a way), and not panic too much when my car starts sliding on slippery roads. I’ve learned to set aside enough money to put gas in my car (Vermont: we are screwed. Everybody else in the country has cheaper gas.). Ditto groceries (Vermont: see above). I’d call that progress. I have also noticed a thicker skin; I require less layering–a lot less–than I did my first winter here. You could say that figuratively and literally, although I’m trying to avoid the use of the word literally since it is overwrought these days, a friend of mine so correctly observed.

But I digress.

My vitals are okay; I’ve been checking my pulse. A year ago I thought I knew more or less how the next couple of years would look, being wise enough not to look any further; ditto a couple of years before that. I don’t think I could have been so completely wrong. (But in October of 2011, I could not possibly have known my marriage was about to end and my family was about to come unglued.) That’s the danger of predicting outcomes, or even making educated guesses. To those who would suggest I need big girl panties, I’d say you have no idea who you’re talking to.

The lowdown: I’ve lost some things I wish I had not since 2011. The home I thought I’d live in forever. Financial security. My hard-won ballet school. My companion dog, Clarence. I had not much control over the end of his life, except to make it as comfy as possible for him, and there I think I succeeded. I’ve also let myself go somewhat physically–nothing I can’t undo in time. I do have control over that; I’m annoyed with myself that I allowed it to happen. This kind of thing (together with ballet- and running-related injuries) has not helped:

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Which brings me to the highup (which outweighs the lowdown by a lot). I found my voice. It took me a while to do it, but I did. That part I did alone, by the sweat of my own brow. I’d say literally, but, you know. And now that I’ve found my voice, I have a lot to say (as you may have surmised).

I also found love. That part was wonderful and unexpected, and emphatically required the participation of someone else. I had long forgotten how it felt. I could not be happier. Now I am redefining what home means. It is challenging but completely worth it.

I figured out that there are people in Vermont who want to be my friends. That is no small thing when you’ve lived somewhere else for three decades.

I discovered that I have marketable skills beyond ballet; I was starting to wonder. There is much work to do, and I am up to the challenge.

So now it is March 1, 2015. March, the month of the vernal equinox. And the resetting of the clocks. I have been measuring winter’s waxing days since the solstice. It thrills me to think about things happening right this second under the snow, under the dead grass, way down below in the layers of soil, moving, breathing, getting ready for another performance.

The snow falls in layers, too, each one clearly visible, each marking a separate winter storm, packed down by weight and gravity, but also diminished by melting. You can see them on the roof of the tool shed. I was feeling packed down when I stepped into Vermont. Less so now, with the coming of another spring, with the accretional layers of a little wisdom, or as a friend once said, the tincture of time, and helped along by some melting. Soon this winter will be a memory, not before there is more snow, maybe some ice, some sliding around on the road with white knuckles, a little more biting cold.

There will also be raspberries buried between layers of pastry cream and heavy whipped cream.

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